published Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Famed fossil isn’t a bird after all, analysis says

This artist's rendition released by Nature shows what scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are dubbing "Xiaotingia zhengi." The discovery of its fossilized remains helped scientists propose an evolutionary tree that suggests archaeopteryx is not a bird.
This artist's rendition released by Nature shows what scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are dubbing "Xiaotingia zhengi." The discovery of its fossilized remains helped scientists propose an evolutionary tree that suggests archaeopteryx is not a bird.
Photo by Associated Press.

By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer

NEW YORK — One of the world’s most famous fossil creatures, widely considered the earliest known bird, is getting a rude present on the 150th birthday of its discovery: A new analysis suggests it isn’t a bird at all.

Chinese scientists are proposing a change to the evolutionary family tree that boots Archaeopteryx off the “bird” branch and onto a closely related branch of birdlike dinosaurs.

Archaeopteryx (ahr-kee-AHP’-teh-rihx) was a crow-sized creature that lived about 150 million years ago. It had wings and feathers, but also quite un-birdlike traits like teeth and a bony tail. Discovered in 1861 in Germany, two years after Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” it quickly became an icon for evolution and has remained popular since.

The Chinese scientists acknowledge they have only weak evidence to support their proposal, which hinges on including a newly recognized dinosaur.

Other experts say the change could easily be reversed by further discoveries. And while it might shake scientific understanding within the bird lineage, they said, it doesn’t make much difference for some other evolutionary questions.

Archaeopteryx dwells in a section of the family tree that’s been reshuffled repeatedly over the past 15 or 20 years and still remains murky. It contains the small, two-legged dinosaurs that took the first steps toward flight. Fossil discoveries have blurred the distinction between dinosaurlike birds and birdlike dinosaurs, with traits such as feathers and wishbones no longer seen as reliable guides.

“Birds have been so embedded within this group of small dinosaurs ... it’s very difficult to tell who is who,” said Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University, who studies early bird evolution but didn’t participate in the new study.

The proposed reclassification of Archaeopteryx wouldn’t change the idea that birds arose from this part of the tree, he said, but it could make scientists reevaluate what they think about evolution within the bird lineage itself.

“Much of what we’ve known about the early evolution of birds has in a sense been filtered through Archaeopteryx,” Witmer said. “Archaeopteryx has been the touchstone... (Now) the centerpiece for many of those hypotheses may or may not be part of that lineage.”

The new analysis is presented in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues. They compared 384 specific anatomical traits of 89 species to figure out how the animals were related. The result was a tree that grouped Archaeopteryx with deinonychosaurs, two-legged meat-eaters that are evolutionary cousins to birds.

But that result appeared only when the analysis included a previously unknown dinosaur that’s similar to Archaeopteryx, which the researchers dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi. It was about the size of a chicken when it lived some 160 million years ago in the Liaoning province of China, home to many feathered dinosaurs and early birds.

Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin, who did not participate in the study, said the reclassification appeared to be justified by the current data. But she emphasized the study dealt with a poorly understood section of the evolutionary tree, and that more fossil discoveries could very well shift Archaeopteryx back to the “bird” branch.

Anyway, moving it “a couple of branches” isn’t a huge change, and whether it’s considered a bird or not is mostly a semantic issue that doesn’t greatly affect larger questions about the origin of flight, she said.

Luis Chiappe, an expert in early bird evolution at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who wasn’t part of the new study, said he doesn’t think the evidence is very solid.

“I feel this needs to be reassessed by other people, and I’m sure it will be,” he said.

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Online:

Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

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Malcolm Ritter can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/malcolmritter

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EaTn said...

Out of the billions of human and animal creatures on this planet, surely they can find one that is in the evolutionary process of changing from one species to another. That would throw cold water on some of the doubters wouldn't it?

July 28, 2011 at 6:36 a.m.
dao1980 said...

EaTn, do you mean a dead and inanimate fossil that writhes and transforms into something else while being held your hand?

Surely you jest.

July 28, 2011 at 7:46 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

All creatures are in the evolutionary process of changing. However, evolutionary change has no "goal" so one cannot predict the outcome, and most evolutionary change happens on a very slow time scale. There are many instances of species change documented in science, and many "transitional" fossils or fossil sequences known. Add the evidence from genetics, embryology, biogeography, and geology, and you have a very compelling picture indeed.

It comes as no surprise that the specifics of theory shift as more evidence emerges. That's the nature of science.

July 28, 2011 at 7:59 a.m.
EaTn said...

dao1980 said "EaTn, do you mean a dead and inanimate fossil that writhes and transforms into something else while being held your hand?"

I meant something like a frog changing into a higher level species like a mouse. If the comment that we are in a constant evolutionary process is scientifically true, we should be able to observe at least one specimen out of billions changing from one species to another, don't you think?

July 28, 2011 at 8:17 a.m.
dao1980 said...

Oh! So you mean like a frog on the bottom and a mouse on the top?

July 28, 2011 at 8:35 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

Individuals don't evolve, EaTn. Populations do.

July 28, 2011 at 8:43 a.m.
dude_abides said...

Like a Monkey with a dorsal fin? lol Or an elephant with a trace of humanity?

EaTn... I don't think frogs like cheese. I would think the frog would rather evolve into a bird...then he wouldn't bump his ass when he jumps. Plus, I'm sure some species over the eons have felt pressure not to evolve from their fellow speciesmates. So there may have been some frogs that were "closet mice" and had to hide their ears from the public, thus confusing future scientists. At least we have the opportunity to watch a Newt turn into an ass right before our eyes!

July 28, 2011 at 8:46 a.m.
EaTn said...

Ikeithlu-- anything other than a scientific observation is theory, not fact. Anyway, why would an identical species in China and the states change simultaneously with different environments?

July 28, 2011 at 8:50 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

You are using a layperson's definition of theory, EaTn. A scientific theory is not the same thing. As far as your "identical species in China", what are you referring to?

July 28, 2011 at 8:53 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

I think I see your confusion. At the time these dinosaur-bird-ancestors were alive (late Jurassic 150 million years) north america and asia were one continent. The paper referred to in the article took this new fossil from China, and along with all the various feathered/winged fossils of that type, proposed new lines of descent that put archeopteryx (which, incidentally, was found in Europe) in a side line rather than in a direct line leading to birds. This is done all the time, and some paleontologists don't accept the proposed change. This also happens all the time. This will be in dispute until many more fossils are added to the analysis. This is NO way diminishes the theory of evolution; instead it illustrates beautifully how the theory describes the diversity of life. Scientists will never know everything; a tiny fraction of species ever become fossilized and discovered.

July 28, 2011 at 9:07 a.m.
dao1980 said...

Ok, on a more serious note. EaTn, your understanding would benefit from a bit of actual factual study before hypothesizing upon the findings of "those who explore, dig, observe, and test".

And no, I don't mean reading propaganda like "Acts and Facts", or any pseudo religious crap publications attempting to bend scientific findings to its purpose.

OR, I'll quit blathering and get out of the way for lkeithlu to explain it much more eloquently than I can.

Hmm, I have edited that last sentence six or so times, and I am still not pleased with the way it reads,.. though I hope my intent is appropriately understood.

July 28, 2011 at 9:08 a.m.
LibDem said...

lkeithlu obviously knows this subject. There are those who want to paint evolution as a journey from A to B, then demand to see a creature in transit. There is, however, no destination B. Each tiny incremental (and successful) anomaly is quite complete with no further goal. (Your cousin with six toes is not a work in progress; he's quite finished.)

Nevertheless, bird or no, this is one handsome creature and I want one.

July 28, 2011 at 11:24 a.m.
EaTn said...

Hey guys, thanks for the debates. Everyone has an opinion and a keyboard, so I won't argue pseudo-science versus religion (which are really the same--a belief without hard evidence). We won't find answers to many mysteries this side of the grave.

July 28, 2011 at 12:05 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

EaTn, my post is not an opinion. Basic science, easily researched for yourself, assuming you understand what science is.

July 28, 2011 at 12:12 p.m.
bigbearzzz said...

Thanks for the Falcon....

July 28, 2011 at 12:27 p.m.
EaTn said...

Ikeithlu--with a masters in science from our own UT, I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. One thing for sure, the older I get the more I realize that all our planet science knowledge could fit in a tea cup compared to the expanse creation of the universe.

July 28, 2011 at 1:04 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

EaTn, that may be true, but if you have a degree in the natural sciences then you should understand how science works, including the basics of evolution. From your comments (such as wanting to see evolution occur in a single organism) I'd say you've forgotten some things.

PS There is nothing wrong with a degree from a state university. My MS is also from a large state university.

July 28, 2011 at 1:15 p.m.
chiyote said...

I've never understood why people doubt evolution. And to the question "Why can't we observe evolution in action?" We can, and we do. But because of perspective, the signs are often missed. Evolution takes thousands of years, yet we only have about 70 or so years on this planet. Our perspective is short sighted and limited. There are, however, forms of micro-evolution which have been witnessed. Bugs and butterflies which change their form adapting to the changing environment around them. Birds which have evolved on islands, such as Hawaii, which have species of birds which have evolved from other species. The cartoon and comical idea that suddenly an animal morphs into another species of animal is ludicrous. Evolution is small and slight changes that gradually happen over time. Changes such as how people in the United States have grown taller since the countries creation over 200 years ago.

July 28, 2011 at 1:22 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

Chiyote, folks have difficulty with evolution because of several things: few laypeople know much about science in general and how science is done, few people have learned any geology (not taught in most schools and even some universities don't offer it) and geology is essential to understanding the earth and how it has changed over millions of years, and finally, as you said so well, it cannot easily be observed in a human lifespan. I blame in part a system of science education that is inadequate because it does not teach students to think like scientists and understand the scientific process. Rather, students are taught an overwhelming collection of facts. Most students' first experience actually doing real science happens late in undergrad work (if they are science majors) or grad school. Most never get the experience.

It is not surprising that our country is scientifically illiterate, especially in the areas of biology, ecology, geology and evolution. This is only aggravated by a political climate that promotes rejection of science and scientists (and academics overall) wholesale because it is "liberal".

Not to pick nits, but the US population has grown taller because of better nutrition, not genetic shift (evolution). Too small a time period and tall people are not "specially selected by their environment" and hence more likely to reproduce.

July 28, 2011 at 1:33 p.m.
EaTn said...

chiyote....there's a difference between changes within species and a leap to changes to different species (we know of new dog breeds within our own lifetime, but they are still dogs). The fact that any species can transform from elemental matter to living, breathing creatures is beyond the thinking of science as we know it.

July 28, 2011 at 1:35 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

EaTn: you are confusing biogenesis with evolution. Evolution does not address the origin of life on earth, just the diversity of life. And there are many documented incidents of speciation. (species changing to new species or splitting into two distinct species) If you need more information go to talkorigins.org. A quick search will lead to to links for dozens of observed cases of speciation and many that are derived from physical evidence.

What was your degree from UT in?

As far as biogenesis, there are several active theories now in the works. A quick google search would get you started.

PS If you would like popular book suggestions, I've got about 3 dozen.

July 28, 2011 at 1:40 p.m.
XGSBoss said...

Everyone knows fossils were put here by Satan to fool us. Gosh, why don't you people open your eyes?

July 28, 2011 at 4:07 p.m.
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